Sophie Finn and Meagher School Proposed Closing or Changes. An Op-Ed Piece by Alderman Hayes Clement and Bill Reynolds.

The case for 2 winning and walkable schools

At a vulnerable moment in Kingston’s history, when several of our most critical public institutions seem to need fixing, it’s curious to find two institutions — that are excelling — slated for the chopping block.

Sophie Finn and Frank L. Meagher elementary schools will shut their doors to children in grades K-5 beginning in the 2012 school year, if the recommendation of the school system’s Master Plan Facilities Committee is adopted by the full school board.

Sophie Finn, on Mary’s Avenue, would be converted, once again, into an alternative high school. Meagher, on Wynkoop Place, would be converted into office space for school district administrators or, more likely, shut down altogether, ending a 100-plus year run as Kingston’s oldest operating elementary school.

The rationale for the closures, of course, is financial.  Faced with declining enrollment and  under-utilization throughout the district’s 11 elementary schools, school administrators are looking to save as much as $680,000 by closing Meagher altogether, not including personnel reductions.

As aldermen on the Kingston Common Council, we know all too well the pressures faced by our counterparts on the school board in searching for ways to curb costs and control taxes. But as aldermen representing the home wards of Sophie Finn and Meagher, we also feel strongly that closing both of these schools to our youngest Kingstonians is unfair – to them and to city tax payers.

Both schools are well-loved by parents, for good reason. Class sizes are small; performance  measures are consistently high, following aggressive and long-term efforts by recent principals to lift test scores; and student bodies are diverse. Even as Title I schools serving a large portion of disadvantaged children, both schools enjoy a high degree of involvement by parents and neighbors.

What’s more, both are walkable for a majority of their students – a concept that some might dismiss as outdated and quaint but that we think plays a critical part in the potential appeal of Kingston neighborhoods to young couples looking to make a home and raise a family.  At a time when the city, the Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Robert Woods Johnston Foundation are investing considerable time and money in a “Complete Streets” program aimed at curbing Kingston’s alarming rates of childhood obesity, the closure of two walkable schools serving almost 450 students seems out of step with bigger public imperatives.

The $680,000 to be saved by closing Meagher represents less than one-half of 1% of the school system’s proposed $145 million annual budget, and once the additional costs of busing newly displaced students is factored in, the savings will be even less. Since the schools are within a half mile of each other and collectively cover a large swath of Midtown, the expanded busing could add considerably to the $7 million-plus we already spend annually on student transportation.

But if closures are the only workable way to make a dent in school spending right now – and we don’t think they are – then the school board at least needs to look, finally, at wielding the budget ax elsewhere.

By the Facilities Committee’s own reckoning, Zena School, in Woodstock, has the lowest enrollment in the system, with only 70% utilization. Situated in a largely rural setting, surrounded by trees, Zena is hardly walkable for anyone, let alone children.

We do not advocate closing any school, but if you’re going to close one, then be fair about it. And fair does not include pitting two high-achieving, walkable schools in Kingston against one another.

Hayes Clement represents Ward 9, home of Sophie Finn School, on the Kingston Common Council. Bill Reynolds, the Council’s Majority Leader, represents Ward 7, home of Meagher School.